United States v. Precias Freeman (4th Cir. March 2021)

The Federal Docket

Sentencing – A sentence was substantively unreasonable where the judge failed to consider the defendant’s severe opioid addiction and where the defendant’s sentence was significantly longer than similarly-situated defendants across the country.

Ineffective Assistance – An attorney provides ineffective assistance of counseling at sentencing if he waives otherwise meritorious claims that would result in a lower Guidelines range.

Ineffective Assistance – An appellate court can find ineffective assistance on direct appeal despite the lack of testimony from the allegedly-deficient counsel if the record on its face shows an attorney was ineffective.

Precias Freeman pleaded guilty to a federal drug offense and was sentenced to 17 years in prison for possessing opioids with intent to distribute. On appeal, she challenged the substantive reasonableness of the sentence and raised a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Fourth Circuit held that vacating her sentence was warranted based on both claims. First, the Court held that, based on the face of the record and despite the lack of an evidentiary hearing on the matter, Freeman received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court recounted how Freeman’s attorney failed to lodge meritorious objection to the PSR regarding the drug quantity before sentencing (and in fact waived them at sentencing over Freeman’s concerns), which did not exclude pills associated with Freeman’s personal drug use and should have been lower. Counsel had also put all of his efforts into getting Freeman in a drug court program, but the record showed he clearly did not understand the requirements for getting her in the program.

The Court also suggested that Counsel was also ineffective in waiving his objection an obstruction enhancement which the probation officer also used to disqualify Freeman for the three-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility. The Court emphasized that Freeman’s bond violations were a result of economic hardship and near homelessness and did not reflect deliberate attempts to flee or evade arrest. Counsel waived these objections because he stated they would not affect Freeman’s sentence, and Court held he was clearly wrong, and ineffective, for doing so on that basis.

The Court concluded that the record was already sufficiently developed on its face to find him ineffective, and that the record was clear “that counsel had no strategic reason to waive straightforward legal arguments that could result in his client receiving approximately a decade less time behind bars in favor of a nonexclusive motion for entry into a diversion program.”

Regarding prejudice, the Court concluded that “the prejudice is manifest” since the Guidelines had been incorrectly calculated and her Counsel had been so “woefully” unprepared. Notably, the Court acknowledged that the district court stated it would have imposed the lengthy sentence regardless of the Guidelines, but held that incorrectly-calculated Guidelines are generally sufficient to show a “reasonably probability” that the sentence may have come out differently.

The Court also held that Freeman’s sentence was substantively unreasonable. The Court noted statistics showing that Freeman’s sentence was “significantly longer than those of similarly-situated defendants,” thus creating an unwarranted disparity, and the 3553(a) factors weighed against such a lengthy sentence, especially since her offense was largely the result of a severe opioid addiction. The Court found that the district court “failed to seriously consider Freeman’s addiction as mitigating” and that her “severe opioid addiction and her disparate sentence merited a downward variance in this case.”

Quattlebaum dissented, holding that the Court’s holding on the ineffective issue and substantive reasonableness of the sentence were “unprecedented in our circuit.” Quattlebaum noted this was the first time a “within-Guidelines sentence” was found unreasonable (despite the majority finding the Guidelines were incorrectly calculated), and he was critical of the “nationwide comparison” to consider unwarranted sentencing disparities as opposed to only co-defendants or within-district cases. Regarding the ineffective claim, Quattlebaum emphasized that this was direct appeal and the purportedly-ineffective attorney had not testified.

Appeal from the District of South Carolina
Opinion by Gregory, joined by Floyd
Dissent by Quattlebaum

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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